You won’t learn to speak another language unless…

You won’t learn to speak another language unless you’re willing to do two things: memorize a LOT of vocabulary, and…

You won’t learn another language unless you’re willing to do these two things:

  1. Develop the sitzfleisch to memorize a lot of vocabulary.
  2. Make a fool of yourself–over, and over, and over again.

The only known predictor of success in learning a second language is this: motivation.  There are lots of things that you have no control over whatsoever that can tip the odds in your favor a little bit–already being bilingual, having had exposure to native languages other than your own in childhood, being quite young when you begin–but, in the end, the only thing with enough of an effect to be predictive is having sufficient motivation.

What do you do with that motivation?  Everyone who’s successful at second language acquisition develops their own tricks.  But, there are two things that are essential–without them, it’s just not going to happen.  You must use your motivation to make yourself do two things:

440px-Zipf_30wiki_en_labels
A graph showing the Zipfian distribution of words in 30 languages on a log-log scale. Source: Wikipedia, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Zipf_30wiki_en_labels.png.
  1. Memorize an enormous amount of vocabulary.  Knowing a sufficient amount of the grammar of the language is necessary, but it’s having lexical items (words) to plug into those grammatical structures that makes the difference between being able to function in the language, or not.  And: if you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know that it’s a very basic fact about the statistics of language that you need to memorize not just the common words, but an enormous amount of rare words, too–because about 50% of the words that you will run into on any given day are going to be statistically of very low frequency.  (That’s the Zipf’s Law in the title of this blog.)
  2. You have to be able to tolerate feeling like an idiot.  Specifically, you must use your motivation to force yourself to take the opportunities that you get to practice the language that you’re trying to learn.

I happen to know from experience that you can feel really stupid without (so far, at least, in my case) dying from it.

This month finds me in Wuhan, a city in roughly central China of 10 million inhabitants, essentially none of whom are occidentals.  There’s a charming aspect to this–people will literally ask me to pose for pictures with their children.  Fat, bald old me.  There being no occidentals here to speak of, the people in stores, restaurants, etc. rarely speak English, so studying Mandarin (or the local dialect, which is not mutually intelligible with Mandarin) is a necessity.

If you have not tried to live with just a tiny bit of a language, you might be surprised how little you can get by with.  For example, a couple days ago I had my first Mandarin conversation.  It involved dropping off my laundry, and went like this:

Me: Míng tiān ma? (Tomorrow?)

Nice laundry lady: Míng tiān.  (Tomorrow.)

Now, after a couple weeks of me struggling to communicate in Mandarin when dropping off my laundry, the laundresses du coin are a lot less nervous about dealing with a hairy barbarian and have progressed to giggling and trying to teach me new words.  Strangers: a different story.


Today I’m sunning on a terrace with a cup of coffee (a luxury here–that cup of coffee cost more than the large, delicious, and healthy meal that I had just eaten) when I notice a couple girls adjusting, readjusting, and re-readjusting their…berets.  Not a huge shocker, as the stereotypical Parisian tourist is now Chinese, but still: they were looking at each other’s berets, then looking at their own berets using their cell phone cameras in lieu of mirrors (yes, in lieu of is English), then looking at each other’s berets, then touching up their lipstick, and then starting all over again.

Obviously I needed a picture of this, but how to get it?  I mean, it’s not like you can go around taking photos of women you don’t know without risking an ass-kicking.  Ah–but, at 56, I am totally accustomed to making a fool of myself.  We have the following (one-sided) conversation:

Me (fat old bald guy, remember): Duì bu qǐ (‘excuse me’).  Patting myself on the chest: wǒ shì fǎ guó rén (‘I am French’–not true, but I am of French descent, so…).  Pointing at each of their hats: fǎ guó, fǎ guó (‘France, France’).  Then I mime taking a picture with my camera.

Them: Speaking to each other for a while, then looking at me like I’m insane, or an idiot, or both.

Me: Patting myself on the chest: wǒ fǎ guó rén (‘I am French’).  Pointing at each of their hats: fǎ guó, fǎ guó (‘France, France’).  Then I mime taking a picture with my camera.  (Yes, this is exactly what I said the first time.)

Them: Talking to each other again for a while, then they shrug at each other–and pose for a couple pictures.  

Me: Xiè xie (‘thank you’).

Them: Walking away in silence.  Do I want to know what they’re thinking?  Definitely not.

Now, bear in mind: the purpose of my relating this attempt at conversation is not to brag about how great my Mandarin is.  The opposite–the point is how bad (nonexistent, really) my Mandarin is.  And yet: I know that…

  1. …if I’m willing to keep making a fool out of myself, I might actually get comfortable with the language (in, say, SEVERAL YEARS), and…
  2. …if I’m not willing to keep making a fool out of myself, I will never get comfortable with the language, and…
  3. …making a fool out of myself did not kill me.  Embarrassing?  Yes.  Fatally so?  No.
IMG_1460
Two beret-wearing Huazhong Agricultural University students being very tolerant of a fat old bald guy outside the Luckin Coffee cafe. Picture source: me.

So, the next time you’re trying to work up the courage to practice your language of choice, just remember this: at least you’re not a fat old bald guy like that funny-sounding Zipf fella.

Scroll down for the English notes!


English notes

sitzfleisch: The perseverance to just sit and plug along at a task.  I learned it from my master’s thesis advisor, who often pointed out that two hours in the library can save you four months in the lab–suddenly the word has become popular.  I have no clue why.

a couple: ‘a couple of.’  This is one of those things that other native speakers give me shit for saying.  What can I tell you–like my hero Tonya Harding, I’m Oregonian trailer trash.  And, yes–you should go see the movie.  It’s really good.

I am the walrus, Part I

Let’s do the obvious thing: talk about French vocabulary related to walruses.

It’s 4 AM where I am, and I’m awake and definitely not getting back to sleep, and for the first time in several weeks I have no looming deadlines, so let’s do the obvious thing: talk about French vocabulary related to walruses.

le morse: walrus

First of all: what are they?  From Wikipédia:

Le morse (Odobenus rosmarus) est une espècede grands mammifères marins, unique représentant actuel de son genreOdobenus, ainsi que de sa famille, celle des Odobenidae.

  • le mammifère: mammal.
  • le représentant/la représentante: representative.

Marine mammals (mammifères marins) are anatomically unusual for a number of reasons, one of which is their teeth: in general, they tend to be homodonts, meaning that their teeth are all of the same kind.  Walruses have their tusks, which are very different from the rest, but the rest of their teeth are pretty much undifferentiated.  Here’s a photo of a walrus mandible–note that the teeth are all pretty similar:

walrus-mandible
Source: Mike Peel, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BLW_Teeth_in_the_skull_of_a_large_Walrus.jpg

Here’s a nice in-your-face photo of the dentition of a more familiar marine mammal, the dolphin–note that they’re all the same:

dolphin-teeth
Source: https://dolphins.org/kids_dolphin_facts

…and another marine mammal, the orca or killer whale (go ahead and try to find a better picture than this of orca teeth without spending 15 minutes plowing through memorabilia of the movie Jaws–go ahead, I dare you…). Like the dolphin, this fellow is a total homodont–all of his teeth are the same:

orque-crane
Orca skull. Source: http://www.orques.fr/index.php?page=biologie-anatomie

…and compare those with the teeth of some non-marine mammals. Your garden-variety mammal is a heterodont, and has up to four kinds of specialized teeth: incisors, canines, premolars, and molars.

pgb_mammal_teeth_notxt.jpg
Source: http://ulrybio.weebly.com/u2-test-quests.html

So, you compare a morse to your typical mammifère marin and they look well-endowed in the tooth variety department, but compare ’em to a primate or a feline and they look pretty impoverished.  And what are those tusks (défenses) for?

On a longtemps supposé que ces défenses étaient utilisées pour déterrer les proies des fonds marins. Mais l’étude de l’abrasion des défenses indique que celles-ci traînent simplement dans les sédiments lorsque le bord supérieur du museau est utilisé pour creuser, et qu’elles ne s’usent alors que dans leur partie supérieure28. Les individus aux défenses cassées peuvent donc continuer à s’alimenter23.

  • déterrer: to extract, unearth, dig up; to exhume.
  • le fond marin: seafloor.
  • traîner: a verb that never fails to fuck me up… I think that in this case it’s the sense of dragging (Je traîne la table dans la pièce voisine, WordReference.com) or of hanging down to a lower level (Les rideaux traînent sur le sol de la salle, WordReference.com).  I have a lot of trouble with traîner, which I associate always and only with what you should not do when there are zombies around (Traînez pas, y’a des zombies partout (sorry if the French is wrong–I just made that up).).
  • le sédiment: …just ’cause I didn’t know about the accent, nor the gender.
  • creuser: another one of those verbs that has a thousand senses.  I think that this is the one that WordReference gives as “to dig,” although I think that it might be closer to to furrow.  Do you creuser a hole, or something longer in one direction than the other, like a sillon, or a creux, or a fossé? Native speakers?
  • s’user: …because this verb is so confusing for us poor anglophones: it means to get worn out, worn down, worn thin.
  • s’alimenter: …just ’cause it’s such a pretty verb, and I wanna remind myself to use it.

…and with that, it’s 5:20 AM, and my sleep deprivation is nearing psychosis-level, and I’m definitely not getting back to sleep, and my sleep deprivation is nearing psychosis-level, and I couldn’t get the pictures of walrus-calf teeth to upload (they have deciduous (“milk”) teeth, which makes for a very confusing picture, and how the fuck do you say “milk teeth” in French?), and my sleep deprivation is nearing psychosis-level, and we haven’t even gotten around to the walrus’s wrist structure, and my sleep deprivation is nearing psychosis-level, and je laisse à part les fièvres et les pleurésies, et…

Comment parler à un alien ?

Aliens land. How do you communicate with them? Read this book on language and linguistics in science fiction by Roland Lehoucq.

I got this message this morning via an email list for francophone specialists in natural language processing, the use of computers to do things with language.  If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll probably find it interesting, and it has some grammatical constructions and vocabulary items that I don’t understand, so if you’re an anglophone reader, you might learn something from it, as I did… I’ve interspersed my comments with the text of the email, and the vocabulary notes show up at the end of the post, after the email.

 Date: Thu, 18 Oct 2018 11:25:52 +0200
From: Frederic Landragin <frederic.landragin@ens.fr>
Message-ID: <7fc42cce-60bb-6e4a-5004-edf8d6db6e0c@ens.fr>
X-url: https://www.belial.fr/frederic-landragin/comment-parler-a-un-alien

Chers collègues,Le livre “Comment parler à un alien ? Langage et linguistique dans la
science-fiction” vient de paraître aux éditions du Bélial’, dans la
collection de vulgarisation “Parallaxe”, dirigée par Roland Lehoucq.

Is the family name Lehoucq composed of le + houcq? Not as far as I can tell—I haven’t found dictionary entries for houcq, houc, or houq.  If it is, indeed, so composed, apparently the h of houcq was an h aspiré, or we would see l’houcq, right??

Imaginez : les extraterrestres sont là ! Sur Terre. À côté de chez
vous… Et d’emblée se pose la question cruciale qui accompagne
l’extraordinaire événement : comment leur parler ? Comment s’en faire
comprendre ? Le langage sera sans doute d’une importance cruciale. La
science-fiction, domaine réflexif par essence, l’a compris depuis ses
origines et en a fait l’un de ses sujets de prédilection, tant au cinéma
qu’en littérature, de “Babel 17” à “Premier Contact”, de
“L’Enchâssement” aux “Langages de Pao”.

This paragraph contains lots of instances of that pronimal bugaboo of us anglophones, en. S’en faire comprendre: where does that en come from?  Is it an anaphor for “by them”?  Native speakers?  The en of La science fiction…en a fait l’un de ses sujets de predilection seems straightforward-ish: I think it refers back to le langage in the preceding sentence.  (By the way: most computer programs for “resolving” anaphora would get this one wrong, basically because they typically don’t look as far back as the beginning of a preceding sentence, or if they do, they tend to prefer to guess that the referent is at the end of the preceding sentence, if there is a candidate (in this case, une importance cruciale) at the end of the preceding sentence as well as one at the beginning. 


Sommaire :
– Avant-propos
– Introduction
– Chapitre 1 : De la science-fiction à la linguistique-fiction
– Chapitre 2 : Origine et évolution des langues naturelles
– Chapitre 3 : Des langues artificielles, mais pour quoi faire
– Chapitre 4 : Les éléments constitutifs d’une langue
– Chapitre 5 : Premier contact avec des extraterrestres
– Anticipons !
– Notes,  – Bibliographie

What does pour quoi faire mean in the title of Chapter 3?  I have no idea.  If it’s “why make artificial languages,” wouldn’t that be pourquoi en faire ? As I said: en really screws up us anglophones…

https://www.belial.fr/frederic-landragin/comment-parler-a-un-alien

La collection : la parallaxe est un changement de perception de notre
environnement dû à un changement de point de vue. En utilisant le
“cognitive estrangement”, la science-fiction observe notre monde sous un
angle différent et l’interroge. L’ambition de la collection Parallaxe
est de montrer qu’il est possible de faire un détour par l’imaginaire
pour parler de sciences et comprendre notre monde.

Question: as far as I know, French—unlike English, where it’s possible but definitely optional–generally repeats the preposition when there’s a conjoined phrase “to talk about science and understand our world”); if I’m right about that, then why does the paragraph contain pour parler de sciences et comprendre notre monde, rather than pour parler de sciences et pour comprendre notre monde, which is what I would have expected?


Bien cordialement,
Frédéric Landragin.
http://www.lattice.cnrs.fr/Frederic-Landragin/

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French vocabulary:

 enchâssement: encastrement dans une châsse (WordReference.com)

The English translation of this word on WordReference makes no sense to me, but I never pass up an opportunity to use the word châsse. 

encastrement: insertion d’un objet dans un autre (WordReference.com) Nous avons opté pour l’encastrement de l’électro-ménager dans les meubles de notre cuisine. (Example sentence also from WordReference)

 The English translation on WordReference seems right for their example sentence, but not for their French-language definition of enchâssement.  Maybe châsse has a meaning besides the one that I know, which is a synonym of reliquaire?  Not according to WordReference, whose English-language translation is, once again, at odds with their French-language definition: the French-language definition is coffret pour reliques précieuses, but they translate châsse into English as shrine, when it should be reliquary.    

 

 

American English reading practice: John McCain, Trump, and torture

I’m a US military veteran, and proud of it. If anyone hates torture more than a military person, I don’t know who it is.

sen-john-mccain-tty-04-gty-jef-170718_hpEmbed_1_18x13_992
John McCain was shot down and held prisoner for 5 and a half years by the North Vietnamese. He never recovered physically from the frequent and lengthy torture sessions that he underwent. The son of an admiral, he was offered early release, but refused to be set free until all of his fellow prisoners were. Meanwhile, Trump avoided the draft, later bragged about it repeatedly in public, and attacked McCain repeatedly as a candidate and as president. Asshole.

Afin de travailler votre amerloque, voilà un reportage sur la torture, John McCain, et Trump.  On débute avec du vocabulaire, et puis je vous invite à suivre le lien vers l‘article dans son intégralité.

For more on a proud US military veteran’s opposition to Trump’s immoral ideas about torture, see this post.  Do you have corrections for my crappy French?  The Comments section awaits you.

Speaking out on torture and a Trump nominee, ailing McCain roils Washington

to speak out: to say something by way of a public statement, typically criticizing something.  Note that the preposition here is on, but it could also be about, and possibly others.

ailing: sick.  If English had the concept of langage soutenu, this would be soutenu, like many of the words in this article.

to roil: to stir up, to disturb, to put in a state of disorder (see Merriam-Webster, sense 2)

Sen. John McCain is 2,200 miles from Washington and hasn’t been on Capitol Hill in five months, but he showed this week that he remains a potent force in national politics and a polarizing figure within the Republican Party.

potent: powerful

polarizing: “to break up into opposing factions or groupings: a campaign that polarized the electorate” (Merriam-Webster, sense 3). Today’s Republican Party can generally be divided into people who like McCain, a war hero and basically OK guy right up to his recent death–versus immoral shitbags who cravenly support Trump no matter how low he stoops into the mud.  Thus: he’s a polarizing figure within the party.

But his declaration Wednesday in opposition to Gina Haspel, President Trump’s nominee for CIA director, has uniquely roiled the political scene. The denunciation has prompted reactions from fellow senators and a former vice president, as well as intemperate remarks from some Republicans aligned with Trump, including a White House aide.
to prompt:to serve as the inciting cause of : evidence prompting an investigation” (Merriam-Webster, sense 3).
intemperate:  not temperate, where “temperate” means “akeeping or held within limits not extreme or excessive MILDmarked by an absence or avoidance of extravagance, violence, or extreme partisanship” (Merriam-Webster, senses 2a and 2d)”
It has revived the fierce debate over torture and its effectiveness in extracting information in the years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — from a man who speaks from experience. McCain was held for 5½ years in a North Vietnamese prison, often deprived of sleep, food and medical care, after a jet he piloted was shot down over Hanoi.
No need for translation here, but for context, it’s worth knowing that McCain was a war hero and a staunch supporter of the US military–and hugely, vocally opposed to torture.  In contrast, Trump the draft-dodger (réfractaire, I think) has long advocated it.  Asshole.
Click here for the complete article in the Washington Post.

What a linguist would name a store if a linguist owned a store

to delight in: to really enjoy doing something; to like a thing very, very much. Examples:

Trump delights in insulting people who are less powerful than he is. Fucking bully–nothing more despicable than a fucking bully.

 

Trump delights in his ability to insult women’s appearance on the world stage. What a loser.

 

How it’s used on the sign: Delight in treasures old and new.

 

Brought to you by the Anglophone Association for the Promotion of Weird Prepositions.

Shit Interpreters Say

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Thanks to the person who posted this on my Facebook timeline–you shall remain anonymous, since you probably would not want it known that you know me far too well.


English notes

This little gem of humor about the realities of translation/interpretation uses a number of devices from very colloquial written English.  Three of them:

Wanna: want to. “Now I really wanna see a horrible faltering translation from one of these movies…”

Cuz: because.  Can also be written ’cause or cos, and cuz can also be “cousin.”

The thing is:  This is used to introduce an assertion that … hm… states some kind of problem or complication with whatever it is that is under discussion.  For example: Zipf, are you going to the lab meeting?  Well…the thing is, I double-booked myself at 1.  In the material, when the person says (I’m going to insert some punctuation, which will make it a lot easier to follow) the thing is, in one dialect this word is the name of a terrifying Demon but in a completely different language from the same area that… the “thing under discussion,” if you like, is the fact that the person is being expected to be able to translate this stuff (but there’s this complication related to the multiple possible meanings of the word in question).

Note that if you’re being really casual, you can shorten this to just thing is… omitting the “the.”

 

Vocabulary makeover, please

Zipf’s Law: The frequency of a word is related exponentially to its rank in a frequency-ordered list. Practically speaking, this means that an adult studying a second language will run across words that they don’t know every day of their life.

To paraphrase Newton: if I speak better French than other Americans, it is only because I spend more time memorizing vocabulary.  My daily, daily, daily morning ritual: with my first cigarette and cup of coffee, I memorize 10 new words.  Zipf’s Law being what it is, I don’t exactly have to go hunting for words that I don’t know—over the course of the day, I note down every new word that I come across, and the next morning, I pick 10 of them to cram into the small amount of remaining space in my much-abused brain.

My go-to dictionaries are WordReference.com, followed by the Farlex French dictionary app.  If I’m pretty sure that I need more context, I go to the Sketch Engine web site if I have Internet access, and Linguee if I don’t.  Pretty straightforward, my little routine.  Quotidian.  Mundane.

Every once in a while, though, it does not yield the desired result.  Case in point: capillotracté.  Not in Word Reference, not in Farlex French.  So: Google… which gets me definitions that I don’t understand, because they make reference to an expression that I don’t understand: tirer quelqu’un par les cheveux.  And so, dear Readers: can you help an amerloque out?


My odyssey started in a place where you don’t expect to see casual use of language: Le Figaro.  The Fig’ is one of the Big 3 French newspapers, along with Libération (left) and Le Monde (center).  As you have probably guessed, Le Figaro is to the right of center.  Like many conservative people, it gets excited about prescribing language usage.  I don’t get excited about prescribing language usage, but I do get excited about language, so although I subscribe to Le Monde (I’m a lefty myself, but I figure that I’ll get the most representative sample of vocabulary more towards the center)I will often go to the Fig’ to read its language articles.  As you might expect from prescriptivists, they tend to be…precise.  Clear.  Unambiguous.  (Si ce n’est pas clair, ce n’est pas français, right?  Harumph.).

So, I’m reading an article on the subject of how to refer to Line 1 of the Paris metro—ligne un, or ligne une?—when I come across a word that I don’t know. I promptly copy it, along with the context in which I saw it, onto an index card (something that does not exist in France–see this post on the mystery):

The next morning, I go to look it up–and find nothing. Word Reference: no love. The Farlex French dictionary app: nope. Fine–I go to Google. I find definitions there, but they all refer to an expression whose meaning is opaque to me: tirer quelqu’un par les cheveux. For example:

img_0545
img_0546

img_0547

How about it, native speakers?  Can you help an amerloque out?  I’d pull my hair out over this, but I’m already bald…

The rule dit capillotracté?  Ligne un, because it’s a number, not the indefinite article.  The indefinite article un/une is inflected for gender, but the number un is not.


French notes

l’amerloque: American, person or language; noun or adjective. Familier et péjoratif.  Wiktionnaire alleges that it comes from Amérique plus oque, providing no evidence; I therefore claim equal plausibility for my own little theory, which is that it comes from Amérique plus locuteur.  Examples from Wiktionnaire, from which I stole them quite gleefully ’cause I don’t like their etymology:

  • […] mais c’est pas un spectacle pour une dame, rigola le jeunot à la casquette amerloque. — (Léo MaletLes rats de Montsouris, 1955)
  • Nom de Dieu, quand est-ce que tu vas arrêter de parler l’amerloque ? — (Sébastien Monod, Rue des Deux Anges, 2005)

English notes

makeover: “An overall treatment to improve something or make something more attractive or appealing.” (Source: American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. (2011). Retrieved September 11 2018 from https://www.thefreedictionary.com/makeover.)  There is an enormous quantity of makeover-themed TV shows.  Don’t judge me.

consult (noun): As a noun, this is stressed on the first syllable: CONsult.  consult is when you send someone or something to an expert, typically in a medical context.  For example, if you go to your doctor and they are pretty sure that you are having a neurological problem, they might tell their clerk to set you up with a neurology consult.  

In coming up with a title for this article, I thought about Vocabulary consult versus Vocabulary makeover.  The former would make a hell of a lot more sense, but since the word that I’m asking you to help me with has something to do with hair, I went for Vocabulary makeover.  Don’t like my choice?  Write your own fucking blog on the implications of the statistical properties of language for second-language learners.

to pull one’s hair out (over something): to have reached the point of frustration with a problem and still be unable to solve it.  Examples:

Bill, can you help me?  I’m pulling my hair out here… Every time I call the constructor, I get a “String Index Out Of Bounds” error, which makes no sense to me whatsoever…   

Dude, I’m pulling out my hair out over this budget. Every time I try to include the annual COL increase for salaries, the spreadsheet doubles the amount allotted for travel to the American Medical Informatics Association annual meeting. What the FUCK?? 

How I used it in the post: How about it, native speakers?  Can you help an amerloque out?  I’d pull my hair out over this, but I’m already bald…